adapted from the original Gaelic by John Stuart Dick
A long time ago in Ireland, King Connacher of Ulster stood on a raised podium in the Great Hall of his palace on the eve of Samhain. The day was over and it was now twilight, the beginning of Samhain. More than a thousand people gathered in the King’s Hall and the uproar was joyous as the King’s servants prepared for the first night of the feast. Poets sang, women danced, and the King’s knights, the Knights of the Red Branch, laid down their arm to join in the merriment, and told stories of noble adventures. Despite the merriment, Cathbad the druid stood alone in the stone-archway window staring into the otherworld. Perhaps only Malcolm, the King’s harper, was at peace, for his wife, Elva, was with child. They sat together on a pile of woven blankets in a darkened corner of the Great Hall talking in gentle whispers.
King Connacher raised his wine horn in a grand gesture. He was about to speak when a cry arose that pierced the air. Fear spread through the people and silence dropped across the room. A few knights drew their weapons and prepared to defend the King.
“Do not stir,” commanded the King. “Take not one step until the cause of that noise be known.” Cathbad stepped forward into the Great Hall and raised his staff. He removed the hood from his cloak and his silver hair reflected the candlelight. His face wrinkled as a winter apple, looked up slowly and he said to the King, “I have been observing the clouds, the age of the moon, and the posture of the stars this week.” He walked to where Elva lay, for it had been discovered that it was the child of her womb that had cried out. He placed his hand over Elva’s stomach and spoke of the child’s fortune. “This is no common child, but one of great beauty, and her name shall be Deirdre. From her beauty will arise a sharp sword to split the tree of Ulster. Kings will seek to marry her and this will lead to disaster. The Red Branch will divide itself and there will be strife and warfare because of her.” Having spoken, he retired again to his contemplation of the skies.
“Kill the child,” cried the knights. “Is the life of one child worth the destruction of many? What say you, King Connacher?” The King knew the druid’s prophecies to be accurate, but his curiosity about such beauty overcame him. He spoke calmly to the people. “It is not good that Elva should see her child die before it is born. And I must not bring pain to the hearts of my guests.”
Many people stirred and murmured to one another, not persuaded. Connacher raised his left hand for silence.
“This child will be born,” he continued. “I will have her raised in a secluded place and I will marry her myself when she is grown. As my charge and then as my wife she will be unable to cause harm. In this way I will defeat the prophecy.”
In two weeks time, the child Deirdre was born. Before she was a year old, the King built a thatched house of stone upon the knoll on a distant hill. A fine orchard was planted around the cottage and enclosed by a circular wall of fieldstones. Deirdre was to live there as the sole charge of Levercham, the King’s Storyteller who, now a young woman, had been raised in King Connacher’s household. The King trusted her beyond any other. “Guard my treasure,” he told Levercham, “and you will see your reward.”
Deirdre was raised among the great hunting lands. Levercham taught Deirdre all she knew about herbs, flowers, trees, and skies, and how to play the harp and sing. Daily, she grew more patient and kind, honest and fair–and loved her. Her hair was crimson and her body was honey-colored like a golden orchid. Only her cheeks and lips and fingertips were coloured by faint carmine. To gaze upon her was to find one’s gaze slipping, grasping for a hold on some part of her that was not in balance with the remainder. She fired the imagination with a look or a gesture, and which gave meanings to common things. Let her kneel and stroke the head of a fine hunting dog and you felt there was goodness in all animals. Her heart grew strong and revealed in its quality in her body—a vision without horizons where life itself could be endlessly explored.
One day in the autumn of her fifteenth year, Levercham told Deirdre that she was to marry the King the following year. It saddened her and she became despondent. When Levercham saw her distress, she said, “But you shall marry the King!–a great honour. This is to be the honour of your life.” Deirdre merely sighed and refused to eat.
One morning, Deirdre sat by the window looking out at an early snowfall. A congress of ravens suddenly descended upon the orchard and one landed on the snow to peck at a beautiful apple that had recently fallen. “Why, that bird,” said Deirdre, “is like the man I saw in my dream last night. His hair was dark like the raven’s, his skin fair as the snow, and his cheeks red as that apple. He is the man I shall marry.” But Levercham called her away from the window.
The winter months that followed were grey and tremulous. Lowered skies released mists of snow upon the hut. Finally, spring came and one day Deirdre was out collecting wood for the stove when she heard a light singing voice. Three hunters were upon a path along the northern most edge of the Royal forest. Deirdre found their song enchanting, but the hunters took no notice of her. As they passed, her attention fell to the tallest hunter. He entered the forest as the other two traveled on. “He is the man of my vision,” she said incredulously. Deirdre could not contain herself, she hurriedly gathered her skirts to follow after him.
Deirdre found the hunter in a wide clearing in the forest. He was a young knight of the Red Branch with grey certain eyes. The canopy of tall oaks spread overhead, the branches reaching together but not quite touching. Deirdre was compelled by a force she had never known before. She went near to him. From the corner of her eye, she saw the sunbeams of light streaming downward, though they seemed to her to shoot from the earth towards the sky. Her heart throbbed in her chest as she drew her face to his own. She waited a moment, then she kissed him. Stepping away, Deirdre quietly spoke this speech. “I saw you in a vision. I will run away with you and love you forever. My kiss is against the King’s rule and I have come away with my mistress without permission. At the new moon, they will take me to his palace to be his wife. You must take me away from here, as in days of old, when Dectera loved the green harper, and ran away with him forever.”
The hunter looked at her and he spoke. “I am Naois, the eldest of the sons of Uisnach.” He had never seen such beauty. As he spoke he trembled, for he realized who he now held in his arms. “Do you not remember the Druid’s prophecy? There is still time for you to return.”
“I value this one moment more than ten lifetimes with Connacher.” Deirdre looked into Naois’ eyes and he there decided. He gave her his love.
They ran together to find Naois” brothers, Allen and Arden, who welcomed Deirdre, but feared for their brother’s safety. They together decided to leave that night so they gathered provisions and left in a hurry going into exile by sea to Alba, that is Scotland.
Naois, Deirdre, Allen and Arden settled at the head of Loch Etive. They built a home of red clay at the top of a waterfall, and called the home, “Granian Deirdre,” which means Deirdre’s Sunny Home. The mountain people of Argyll welcomed the great warriors. Naois caught the river’s salmon and the deer of the glen, and Deirdre thought that none could be so content as they. For many moons they lived happily. The months became years and time moved slowly and beautifully—slower than a candle burns, slower, indeed, that a memory fades.
Back in Ireland, King Connacher had, through force of arms, destroyed or made peace with his enemies and established his right to rule. His land was prosperous, but he had become restless. He went to see Cathbad the Druid on an evening two years after the exile of Naois. Cathbad listened in silence, for he knew what weighed upon the King.
King Connacher spoke of it this way. “Our greatest people, the three torches of the Gael, Naois, Allen and Arden, are not amongst us. It is unfit that they be in exile on account of a woman only. I am going to send Fergus mac Roigh to Alba to announce the King’s pardon, and invite them here to Emhain Macha, for a great feast.”
”So shall it be,” said Cathbad. And it was done.
Fergus arrived three days later with the King’s message, and there Naois welcomed him. Fergus spoke of news from Ulster and nostalgia grew in Naois. He desired to go home more than anything and he went to Deirdre in a green field high above the glen to tell her the good news.
She listened to Naois and was frightened. They talked until a pale wash of light remained in the western sky, though Deirdre knew his resolve and that nothing could change it.
In the morning they walked along the high cliffs over the reef and the hissing waters of the ocean. She tried to persuade Naois from departing.
“I had a vision last night. Three ravens came to us from Emhain Macha with three drops of honey in their beaks, and took away with them three drops of blood.”
“What means this dream?”
“It means Fergus comes to us with offers of peace as sweet as honey, but the three drops of blood are Allen, Arden, and you, my soul. Connacher is a flatterer and the honey is a trap for death.”
Despite the vision, Naois decided to return without Deirdre’s consent. “We will lay aside our grievance,” Naois told Deirdre. “We sail tomorrow morning.” Deirdre shed tears through the night and hardly slept.
In the morning they gathered at the shore where Fergus waited with the sailing ship. The air smelled of tar and sunburned barnacles. They set off early, the mist intermingled with the sky and the the coast of Alba became blue, then pale blue as it gradually faded from sight altogether.
By midnight the full moon glowed upon their sails and the wind tugged hard at the ropes. Deirdre brought forth her harp and sang a gentle song. The brothers were stilled by its sadness. They each looked upwards while she sang and their hearts were halved more swiftly than the sword divides an apple.
At last, they could see the sunrise upon the north hills of Ireland. Onshore, Fergus traveled ahead by horse and gave his word to the King. “The Sons of Uisnach have come. Let your kindness be shown,” he said
“But I am not ready to receive them,” said Connacher. “Send them to the Inn of the Red Branch. My house will be ready tomorrow.”
Late that night, King Connacher sent for a warrior, Gelban Grednach, to the Inn where Naois and Deirdre stayed. “Go to the Inn, where Deirdre stays and tell me whether she has kept her great beauty. This I must know quickly.”
Gelban hurried to the Inn. Out of breath, he looked in through a slat in the window. So great was Deirdre’s beauty that he gasped and gave himself away. Naois looked up at Grednach, angrily seized some dice from a table, and hurled them at the window. One struck Grednach in the eye and blinded him. Grednach howled as he ran back to the King who was pacing in his chamber.
When Grednach entered, blood streamed from his face.
“You have seen her?” asked the King.
“I have, and while I was looking Naois took my eye out.” He cringed at the pain.
“How does she appear?” demanded the King.
“I say the truth. Although my eye has been blinded, were it not for your urgent request, it was my one desire to remain there and gaze upon her for all my days.”
Connacher flew into a rage and immediately gathered one hundred brave men in his great hall.
“Go down to the Inn at once. Kill the strangers, and bring Deirdre back to me alive or you shall all die.”
The warriors prepared for battle.
Unknown to the King, Levercham had been hidden in the crowd and ran ahead to warn Naois.
” I will put an end to this,” said Naois when he heard the news. “My brothers and I will stop the pursuit.” The brothers prepared for battle in haste. Fully armed, they went forth upon the great plain towards a distant copse and hid themselves in the shadowy tanglewood.
During the millennia that men have lived in the world with other men, they have battled one another, but on this night there were none so disadvantaged as the Sons of Uisnach. But it is also true that there were none with such noble hearts. Indeed, by measurement of spirit, each brother was the equivalent of twenty warriors.
In a rush, the King’s warriors appeared at the edge of the plain and the young heroes went straight into the fray. The brothers swords shone in the gloom with a gleam of chill flame, so deadly were the hearts of those who had been betrayed. It was impossible to tell among the clashing swords who challenged whom and blood soaked the grass until it was a slippery pool. When the fighting had ended, the brothers had laid down the entire hundred.
Connacher came to the edge of the plain and cried out with wrath, but the Sons of Uisnach and Deirdre were traveling across the great plain in the darkness towards the shore, towards Alba, towards home.
The King ordered Cathbad the Druid to his side and spoke in forced calmness. “Stop them or I shall see to it that you shall be banished forever.”
Silently, Cathbad went to work. He raised a forest on the plain, with dense undergrowth, but the brothers went through it as easily as though it were air.
Then the druid turned the plain into a freezing sea. The brothers stripped their shirts from their backs. Deirdre climbed upon Naois’ shoulders and they swam against the howling current. Their speed did not slow and the brothers traveled as swiftly as if they had fled on foot.
Seeing this the King frowned and the druid feared for his life. He raised his arms and the sea turned to stone, rocks as sharp as swords seared upwards, and ground together with a great noise, chewing like the monstrous teeth of some enormous granite creature.
The brothers ran upon the stones but slipped and fell many times. Finally, Allen, the youngest, cried out in pain and Naois took him upon his right shoulder, but he soon died. Naois did not let him go, but continued to carry him. He looked around for Arden but saw, to his misery, that he had also died, and the will to live was torn from him. Wounded and heartbroken, not even the love of Deirdre could sustain Naois, and he slipped between two stones. Lying within the gnashing rocks, he was overcome, and died without a word. At this instant the plain returned to grass.
“They are gone,” said Cathbad. “The Sons of Uisnach are dead. They shall trouble you no more.” He slipped back into the night.
The King went forth to behold Deirdre for himself. She knelt over Naois and his brothers in tears. While still deep in her sorrow the King ordered her taken away and locked in his palace. He demanded the brothers be buried in a grave where they lay. The people did so and marked the place with a standing stone, with the name Uisnach.
The prophecy of Deirdre had come to pass and she stayed in the household of Connacher. She could not eat nor sleep nor cry. After thirty days, a soft blanket of snow fell upon the world outside her window. She sent a foot-warrior for her harp. Alone alone in her locked room she sang quietly to Naois. She knew she was dying as surely as though it had been ordered by Connacher. She looked upon the vast empty plain where the battle had been held as she sang:
In skies of frozen snow
Where winds of sadness roam
Red sun’s burning low
You were my home
Where I would go
In green fields
Your name upon
The standing stone
One last call
When death from life
Begins to fall
The streams no longer go
To tides of distant seas
No love can grow old
Your arms my home
Where I would sleep
How can I now
Alone grow old
Shed their lights
When death from life
Slips silently to the night
In the morning, when the King called for her, Deirdre was dead. The King ordered her buried in the hills where she had been raised. In the night, however, a small band of people in Ulster stole into the night and removed her to a grave on the Great Plain, beside the grave of Naois. The people drove a stake of Yew wood to mark each grave.
Two years later, beside the standing stone, grew two beautiful Yew trees. Though the trunks emerged from the ground six feet apart, the trees had grown together and had twisted around one another. The branches were intertwined, so that the two trees were one. All this happened a long time ago in Ireland, and though the stone has crumbled to dust, the trees still grow there today.